True Garden Aeroponic Farm – An Oasis in the Desert

When you think of the desert you don’t tend to think of verdant, lush vegetation. Deserts are some of the most challenging growing environments on Earth exhibiting extremes of temperature and little in the way of accessible water, however despite this, a sixth of the world’s populations live in desert regions. Deserts cover a fifth of the planet’s land masses and are sadly increasing at an alarming rate with widespread desertification largely as a result of human action such as deforestation.

Despite the inhospitality of these regions, over 1 billion people and counting call them home and all those people have to eat. One of the problems in providing food to people living in extreme environments such as deserts is that the majority of food will have a very large carbon food print, having to be bought in from other regions. In order to tackle this there needs to be ways to remove the extreme conditions in these areas from the equation, or better yet capitalise on them, in order to grow fresh food in situ and Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) might just be the future of farming these areas as well as a key development in realistic widespread modern self-sufficiency.

Situated in a relatively unassuming greenhouse behind a relatively unassuming pharmacy in the suburbs of Phoenix AZ is True Garden, an aeroponic CEA tower farm owned by Compound (holistic) pharmacist Troy Albright. The micro farm provides a ceaseless supply of fresh greens to local stores and restaurants. It’s hard to put into words the experience of first walking into the True Garden greenhouse. The air outside is hot and dry and for my uninitiated British body, the strong sun makes it uncomfortable to be outside to too long. Most of the walls of the greenhouse are opaque but as you approach the door and don your sterile plastic booties you get the first glimpse of the oasis that awaits you inside. On stepping through the door, you move instantly from a dry arid and dusty world into a fresh clean humid world of green, though admittedly no less hot.

True Garden is clearly a working farm, but it is at the same time a staggeringly beautiful environment to be immersed in. The highly oxygenated sealed environment is pristinely clean and there is a freshness that makes it easy to forget you are in the suburbs of a desert city. You feel almost like a tiny Alice in Wonderland, as you wander down the pristine rows of 2.7m (9ft) tall towers of green that totally dwarf you.

Troy may be a pharmacist, but he hails from a long line of farmers going back generations. Growing up on a farm in Minnesota as a child he was accustomed to the day to day use of inorganic pesticide and herbicides. However, as the natural interest in the human body that would ultimately lead him down his chosen career path grew, he began to question the impact these chemicals had on the body. After much deliberation of how best to tackle the problem, He was introduced to the practice of aeroponic tower farming by one of his patients and True Garden was born.

“When I talked to my parents about whether we should have used these pesticides my father would say well yeah, because the government said that it was safe.” Troy Albright

Aeroponics is a type of hydroponics but rather than the plant roots being suspended over water, or misted, aeroponic roots actually hang free in the air with nutrient enriched water raining down over them on a timed system. The sealed nature of the greenhouse means that an ideal growing environment can be maintained resulting in year round production without seasonal considerations. The risks of pests and diseases are significantly reduced with 70% less harmful microbes compared to growing in soil and far fewer pests. Going vertical means 10 times more can be growing in 90% less space and Troy has over 40 different crops turned over on a rolling basis without the need for crop rotation meaning there can be year round harvesting. The carbon footprint of these farms can be substantially lower as they require no heavy machinery like tractors, and actually turn the desert environment to an advantage with the use of solar panels to power the system. Plus, there is the direct impact growing in situ has on food miles, for example Troy says most food imported into Arizona travels on average around 1500 miles, the food from True Garden travels an average of just 12miles from farm to plate.

Precise mixes of nutrients are used in the towers to supply exactly what the plants need to thrive, they are a combination of over 70 natural sea and earth minerals that are naturally present in the soil. The plants clearly love it as they are basically spoon fed precisely what they need to grow at their optimum, and show their gratitude with accelerated growth, for example it takes just 26 days for a head of lettuce to go from seedling to harvest. These are minerals that we as humans need and plants convert that into a form that our bodies can use.

“As a pharmacist I’m more of a chemist, so I look at the chemistry of all these nutrients and these minerals and if we don’t have these in our diet, we become deficient which leads to more disease and more inflammation in the body. Hippocrates said, “Let food be medicine and medicine be food” and I firmly believe that. If you don’t have a healthy gut biome it doesn’t signal the brain right, everything starts with the food you eat” Troy Albright

So why and do farms like this and hydroponic growing in general get me so excited? Well because this really is a realistic way to grow food in any modern home and is capable of providing most if not all the fresh food for a family, year round and in a very small space. Use of grow lights in home units allows us to conquer the restrictions of seasonal growing and alleviates the requirement for any outside space in order to grow food. Plus, units are generally automated which is good news for our fast paced time poor society. I see hydroponic gardens as a vital part of the future, they are a realistic way for every home, no matter the size or location, to become more self-sufficient, ensure a level of food security, reduce their food mile and plastic usage and have complete confidence over the provenance of at least part of their diet. If this kind of in home farming became common place, if the hydroponic garden was as indispensable a kitchen appliance as say the fridge or the cooker, the impact on our reliance on intensive farming would be profound and I just think that is really exciting!